How an online MBA can help veterans transition to a civilian career

BY Meghan MalasMay 03, 2021, 8:09 AM
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Veterans looking to leave their military life behind and enter the corporate world often choose to enroll in an MBA program, swapping combat boots for business books. 

For many veterans and active military members, obtaining an MBA can play a key role in making the transition from military to civilian life. But some MBA programs are a better fit for military members than others. Here are four factors to consider if you are a former or current member of the military looking to pursue an online MBA

Online MBA programs offer flexibility for former or current military members

One of the largest obstacles to pursuing an MBA degree as a current member of the military is finding balance. Beyond all the military commitments—shift work, permanent moves from location to location around the world, deployments, exercises, training, and formal military education courses—students must also find time for family life while completing MBA program coursework. Former members of the military are met with similar challenges as they balance the responsibilities of their professional and family life with school. 

Because time is tight, it’s necessary to find a program that will accommodate the limited schedules of military personnel. 

The University of Florida is popular among members of the military because of the dynamic and flexible nature of the school’s programs, according to Naz Erenguc, director of admissions for the university’s MBA programs at Hough Graduate School of Business. UF offers two online MBA formats: a traditional, two-year, 48–credit-hour format that’s designed for any undergraduate major (or for those who have earned a business degree more than seven years ago), or an accelerated, 16-month, 32–credit-hour option for people who already have a business degree. 

“I think having that flexibility of being able to watch their lectures at any given time and being able to dictate how they’re consuming their lecture content has been important for our veteran students, whether they are beyond their service or still serving,” says Erenguc. 

Similarly, Indiana University draws a lot of veterans to its online MBA program because of the various options for attending class. “One of the things I think that is especially helpful with our military students is the flexibility; they don’t have to attend our live sessions,” says Will Geoghegan, interim chair of Kelley Direct Programs at the university and a clinical assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship. 

At IU, at least half the program usually needs to be synchronous, but there are options to do a separate course-related task in place of attendance, Geoghegan says. “This way, if any of our military students are suddenly deployed out of the country, they can still work asynchronously on that class, or their whole MBA, if they wish.”

Resources for former and current military members

In addition to flexibility, many current or former military members are looking for an MBA program with a clear path to completion, an emphasis on connection, and resources to support students. A crucial aspect of the UF online MBA program is ensuring that students know exactly what they’re going to be doing from the day they start to the day they receive their degree, Erenguc says.

“The flexibility is really in the day-to-day logistics, like when you watch your lectures and complete your coursework asynchronously,” she says. “But the structure lies in the fact that it’s a cohort-based program. So you’re going to come in with a group of around 55 to 65 students, and you’re going to take the same courses, basically from start to finish.”

Additionally, the UF program differs from traditional all-online MBA programs as it offers more of a hybrid approach. Students meet in person at the Gainesville campus approximately once a quarter to take their finals and attend the first day of classes for the next term on the following Sunday. 

This balance between adaptability and structure was the right fit for Patrick Brennan, a recent alumnus of the UF two-year online MBA program and an active-duty senior master sergeant. Brennan’s primary focus throughout his military career was providing weather intelligence as part of special operations forces and for U.S. Army infantry units. 

After 24 years of military service, Brennan wanted to obtain an MBA to transition to a business career. He says that the hybrid model of the University of Florida’s program, as well as the network he built in his cohort, allowed him to better integrate into civilian life. 

“The civilian and military divide in experiences and language can also present difficulties for veterans interacting with teachers and other students,” Brennan said via email. 

“As the two-year course progressed, groups of us would often arrive in Gainesville early to study, spend time together, and just enjoy each other’s company away from the stress of everyday life for a day or two. I am extremely grateful for the lifelong friends that I made, and I certainly could not have completed the program without them,” he added. 

How MBA faculty members can help veterans change careers

A program’s faculty must also recognize how veterans might apply their strengths and skill sets acquired from military experience to the business world. 

For Lizzy Elrod, it was essential that an MBA program provide career service resources that would help her transition into a nonmilitary career. Elrod, a weapons systems officer and public affairs officer in the U.S. Navy, is currently enrolled in Indiana University’s Kelley Direct online MBA program.

Elrod liked that the program was highly ranked, year after year, partly because of its career service resources, she says. “Having been in the military for a while, I haven’t had an interview in almost a decade, and I do not have a ton of experience with knowing how to manage or negotiate a salary. So even though I’m a very competent woman, I knew I was going to need more help and knowledge as I transitioned.”

Active military and veteran students often arrive to Geoghegan’s classes with a lot of the qualities necessary to succeed in a corporate setting, he says. And the career resources available throughout the program assist in translating those skills into the realm of business, he notes. 

“In general, students with a military background have leadership experience, resilience, the ability to work in a team, and they are very humble,” Geoghegan says. “So then what our MBA program tries to do—not just for military students but for all of our students—is to help realize those capabilities and those strengths in a different context.” 

How veterans can cover the cost of an MBA

Brennan had several stipulations when he was selecting an MBA program: He wanted a program that was either entirely or mostly online at a recognized institution that was highly rated nationwide, and that would be fully covered by his GI Bill benefits. 

Like Brennan’s tuition, Elrod’s was entirely covered with the support of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Information about the bill can be found on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, where former and current members of the military can see the amount of support they are qualified to receive. 

If the GI Bill doesn’t cover the entirety of your MBA tuition, the Yellow Ribbon Program may help pay for out-of-state, graduate, or private school tuition. However, not all schools are enrolled in the Yellow Ribbon Program, and schools can offer different amounts of financial support to students based on their major and whether someone is an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral student. Each school also has a finite number of students who can receive support from the Yellow Ribbon Program every year.

You can see which schools offer the Yellow Ribbon Program here, and further information about the program and how to apply are available on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website. 

Beyond federal support, it’s also wise to explore scholarship options for active military members and veterans that are offered by business schools. Finally, there are also military-specific scholarships that are offered by nongovernmental organizations and groups.